Cedric has arrived at Slater Junior High, a long bus ride from the Brown campus into a working-class neighborhood of Providence. He is conducting his research for the Fieldwork and Seminar in High School Education course, and will be attending the school two days per week for the entire semester. While he knows that he is supposed to take on the role of the dispassionate observer at the school, Cedric feels right at home. He meets Mr. Fleming, the eighth-grade math teacher, who Cedric thinks treats the students a little too harshly.
In this scene, Cedric is taking his first step towards a concrete understanding of his own educational circumstances by observing another underserved school in a poor, inner-city neighborhood. This process will be difficult for Cedric, who has only been separate from his experiences at Ballou for a few months, and is still feeling a strong emotional connection to that time of his life.
After the class is over, the students crowd around Cedric and ask him about Brown. They have never heard of anyone attending Brown, despite the fact that it is just across town. Mr. Fleming talks to Cedric privately after the class is over, and tells him that he knows which students will die when they leave the school. This sends Cedric into a tailspin of emotions, and makes him like Mr. Fleming even less for his judgmental comments and behavior. He leaves thinking about punching the teacher in the face.
Rather than being the poor, black student surrounded by middle-class white college students, Cedric is now the Brown University student, surrounded by working-class children at Slater. And because he empathizes with so many of these students, Cedric reacts emotionally to their teacher’s dismissive comments about them and their futures.
Meanwhile, Barbara is talking to one of the middle managers at work about Cedric, and when she tells the man that her son is at Brown University, he expresses surprise and asks if he has an athletic scholarship. He is from India, and has boasted about his daughter for years, but for as smart as he has made her out to be, she is at the University of Maryland, which is not nearly as good of a school as Brown. Barbara responds that Ivy League colleges do not give out athletic scholarships, and that her son is there for academics.
Cedric is not the only one who is struggling with prejudice—while he attempts to find his place at Brown, Barbara must deal with the surprise of those around her, who simply assume that her son could not possibly earn a place at an Ivy League college. Her manager mentions sports, referencing the wrongheaded belief that black men are more likely to be athletes than scholars, without knowing Cedric at all.
Barbara chats with her other coworkers—black women like herself—about the possibility of a slave museum. The women joke that their office is a slave museum, not only because the building once housed slave quarters, but because it is a place where black women cast aside their ambition and work in administrative positions for the majority of their lives. She thinks about how things have changed with Cedric, how she tries to offer him advice about trusting in God, but she is not sure he is listening to her, and sometimes wonders if he has any reason to. One of her few joys in life at this point is her shoe collection, though she sometimes feels uncomfortable when her fellow parishioners at Scripture Cathedral compliment her, as material wealth can be a touchy subject in church.
Barbara continues to struggle without Cedric around to care for and protect. With less to occupy her time and mental energy, she is more acutely aware of the fact that she is stuck in a dead-end job, even jokingly referring to it as the “slave museum.” And her dedication to sacrifice and self-denial has waned, as the reason for all of her sacrifice has left her to achieve his dreams on his own. Barbara is able to have something for herself, but she is not used to this kind of freedom, and goes overboard, splurging on items she does not need and getting into financial trouble.
When Barbara gets home from church, she finds a Notice of Eviction in her pile of mail. She knows that this has been coming, and she even attended a Housing Court hearing in which her landlord explained that she was three months behind on her rent. Rather than explain where her meager salary went during that time, she simply promised that she would get back on track, and was ordered to double-pay her rent for the next two months to make up for it. But she did not pay, and the eviction notice has come again. She thinks about the shoes she has been able to buy with the extra money that has not gone toward her rent, and the other bills that she has been able to pay on time. She thinks about how getting her back rent is a test from God, and then goes to sleep.
Although Barbara is responsible for mismanaging her money and failing to pay rent, it is important to note that she is also in an exploitative situation, with a landlord who does not seem to understand or care about his tenants and their financial situations. And not unlike Cedric Gilliam’s day in court, Barbara’s hearing strips her of the confidence to advocate for herself—instead of explaining her circumstances or asking for help, Barbara passively accepts the situation and the unrealistic consequences.
Back at Brown, there has been a positive change in the relationship between Cedric and Rob since they returned from break. One night, with the lights off, they talked about their lives, and Cedric opened up to Rob, while his roommate asked questions and really tried to understand what Cedric’s life must have been like. They agree that the conversation was good, and that they should have had it much earlier in the year. This morning, they go to breakfast together, and Rob tells Cedric about a “wall of shame” that lists black male students who engage in interracial dating, and how it is unfair to shame black people in that way. Cedric appreciates Rob’s outrage at this topic, and the fact that they are talking about race at all.
In the rollercoaster of a relationship between Rob and Cedric, there is a moment of calm, when the two of them discuss some of the issues of race and class that are underlying their constant disputes. Rob makes it clear to Cedric that he is not racist, at least in theory, and that he is open enough to try and understand Cedric’s background. This is a good first step, though their differences in living styles will keep them in constant conflict, until they can find space from one another.
Cedric has been estranged from Zayd, who had become more or less his best friend, since they had a fight in January and went their separate ways. This makes Cedric feel strangely lonely, as now is the time when students begin to establish their groups of friends and thus their identities. Many of the students on campus are part of groups, like the feminists or the LGBTQ Alliance. Cedric is beginning to feel more open minded about homosexuality, which had seemed very shocking to him when he first arrived. He has met a number of students, like one of the peer counselors for his unit, who are gay or bisexual, and aren’t bad people at all. There are also the racial and ethnic groups that attract Brown students, including the Latin American Students Association, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and of course Harambee House, the all-black dorm.
It is clear that Cedric’s relationship with Zayd is unbalanced, with Cedric needing Zayd much more than Zayd needs Cedric. Without his friend, Cedric must start over and try to find a place to fit in—but in order to fit in, Cedric must have some idea of who he is, which is proving difficult. On one hand, he has opened his mind a bit regarding homosexuality, which was a strict cultural taboo back at home. For black men in the inner city at this time, masculinity was defined in relation to heterosexual conquests, with men like Cedric Gilliam—with his many girlfriends—exemplifying masculinity.
Cedric wanders down to Café Paragon, where Rob and his friends are celebrating Rob’s 19th birthday. Cedric realizes that he needs to overcome his tendency to shut himself off from other people, and that is his biggest challenge. At the café, he engages in friendly conversation with the people he knows from his unit, and feels energized by the experience. When some of the students pull out their driver’s licenses and fake IDs to order beer, Cedric decides that it is time to go, because he does not have a driver’s license and has no interest in drinking beer.
Once again, Cedric is faced with the reality that his new college friends engage in many of the same illegal activities that Ballou students did, but with relatively impunity. Far from being tempted by the lure of alcohol, Cedric falls back on the strict rules of his religious upbringing, and rejects the activity. In this time of insecurity, Cedric relies on the simple divisions of right and wrong.
In Larry Wakefield’s education class, the students are arguing about the midterm paper, suggesting that they should have the opportunity to do something more creative, like a play or a poem, rather than an analytical essay. He reminds the students that they are at Brown to develop their writing and analytical skills, but Cedric comments that he feels so angry and passionate about what he has seen at the school, that he will have a hard time being intellectual about it. A few weeks later, Wakefield reads Cedric’s assignment, which is a two-page poem. Wakefield is intrigued and also horrified, wondering how Cedric made his way into Brown with this kind of work.
The midterm for Cedric’s education class will be another opportunity for Cedric to passionately rehash his feelings about his upbringing in the inner city, which has been his most effective tool up to this point. However, as his professor notes clearly in class, these students are in college to develop their analytical skills, and this will require Cedric to leave his comfort zone and try something different.
In class, Wakefield passes out the midterms and Cedric’s does not have a grade on it. He asks Cedric to come to his office to discuss it. The professor has spent a lot of time thinking about what to do about Cedric’s poem, and it makes him rethink his entire career in education. When Cedric arrives in his office, Wakefield tells him that he loved the poem and was moved by it, but that Cedric also needs to work on his analytical skills, and find some distance from the topic he is studying. He gives Cedric a B on the assignment, but makes him promise to write a more traditional research paper for the final. He finishes with advice to gain some distance from all that he has been through, and to put away some of the anger that he feels, in order to see the work from an academic perspective.
Cedric’s very personal poem is moving to his professor, who gives him a B; he also gives Cedric his long-overdue opportunity to finally push himself to think critically and write analytically. While Cedric already possessed the skills to succeed at Ballou, here at Brown he will need to take risks, both academically and socially. He has begun to take some of those social risks, interacting with people from drastically different backgrounds; it is now time for him to stop relying on his emotionally charged writing and begin to think and write critically like a college student.